Fire Drill Becomes Life Lesson for Upper Marlboro Students

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Embrace your culture, Victorious Hall says.

The annoying alarm sounds and flashing lights blare throughout the halls.  Students rustle out of their seats and shoot for the door in excitement. It’s a fire drill. As a teacher, I am used to this lively experience, but on this 90-degree day, I was not prepared for the cultural emergency that was about to take place.

As this almost all-black male middle school class ventured outdoors, many of them decided to huddle under trees rather than line up on the basketball court. And when I asked them to move, they all were hesitant. It was extremely hot outside, so I could understand their unwillingness to budge. I soon discovered their reasons were cultural.

Many of these young black men said they did not want to stand in the sun because, “I don’t want to get black!” They said girls don’t like dark skin and being dark is ugly. They even poked fun at the darkest children in the group. The darker children tried to alleviate some of the pain by taunting other children who were dark as well.

As their educator, I felt compelled to address this ignorance. My initial reaction was tactful. To break their comedic ignorance, I had to be smart.

“Who would you rather be?” I asked the students. Most of them responded with more jokes, so I asserted my voice and moved closer so that they could understand the seriousness. I chose to speak for only 30 seconds because the heat, chaos and looseness of a fire drill would not drive the point home. Still, the passion in my voice and the seriousness of my tone served as shock. The real lesson would come once we went back into the building.

I began with an apology for being loud and overly emotional. I tried to explain to them that the value that they place on their skin color evolves from the plantation system in America. I discussed how slave masters would rape black women and their light-skinned children would receive greater benefits. The students sat up in their seats. I told them how we were taught that being dark was a curse and their eyes got wider. And when I explained that slavery is about the mind and not the body, they asked intelligent questions and changed the mood from ignorance to attentiveness.

In the end, the students were receptive and were able to grow from the fire drill experience. Teachers must seize teachable moments when they present themselves. Educators can decide how to react to situations, but we must be thoughtful, caring and understanding every time. With every word we speak, we guide future generations.